“Letter Boxes:” On Muslim Women and Inconstancy in the Early Modern Period

Various Western politicians and feminists continue to scrutinize Muslim women and make them and their hijab a site of racialization. Recently, Boris Johnson said this about Muslim women’s hijab: “it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.” He continued by asserting that if “a female student turned up at school or at a university lecture looking like a bank robber,” he would ask her to remove her head cover so that he could see her face. An Orientalist assumption that associates hijab with backward and misogynistic Islamic laws underwrites Johnson’s disparaging comments. Such an assumption, in turn, reinforces the stereotype that Muslim women need to be modernized, saved, or rescued from the patriarchal and Islamic societies of the East by the liberals and the feminists of the West.

Writing on the practice of veiling during the colonial period in Women and Gender in Islam, Leila Ahmed explains that “Veiling—to Western eyes, the most visible marker of the differentness and inferiority of Islamic societies—became the symbol now of both the oppression of women (or, in the language of the day, Islam’s degradation of women) and the backwardness of Islam, and,” she continues, “it became the open target of colonial attack and the spearhead of the assault on Muslim societies.” According to this Western view of Muslim societies, the only way for women to attain civilization and emancipate themselves from such oppression would be to give up their customs and Islamic practices, including veiling.

Various writers during the colonial period shared these views in order to deprive women of their religious customs. However, as Ahmed emphasizes, many of these religious customs were not necessarily imposed by a patriarchal society. In the case of Egypt, for example, although some women decided to take off their veils in order to show their modernization, others chose to wear hijab as a form of resistance against colonial power, which regarded such practice as uncivilized and oppressing. Nevertheless, and despite the fact that Johnson himself uses the verb “choose” to highlight Muslim women’s autonomy and freedom of choice, hijab continues to represent an outdated practice, and its critics regard it as a sign of the misogynistic practices of the Islamic world. This stereotypical representation of Muslim women enables Western politicians as well as writers to portray themselves in a more liberal and civilized manner. Such othering of Muslim women facilitates their racialization in the West and the East.

Donna del Cairo (image courtesy of https://bit.ly/2B2Jx7J)

As a hijabi Muslim woman working with early modern texts and witnessing such discrimination, I’ve found myself drawn to representations of Muslim women in early modern drama. My research highlights how modern archetypes of Muslim women have a more complicated history than we think. Orientalist narratives depict Muslim women as submissive, oppressed, and uncivilized: a stereotype that continues in contemporary political discourses. To some, this might be regarded as the legacy of a history of Muslim women’s subjection in which Muslim women have always been depicted as constant in their devotions to their religion and gender roles. The Renaissance portrayals of Muslim women, however, challenge this teleological view by showing how their inconstancy enabled them to have an agency that was denied to them in later periods. These representations give us a better sense of the legacy of this history, which has not been narrated before. My research focuses specifically on the relationship between representations of Muslim women on the early modern stage and changing cultural perceptions of the gender of constancy in English drama from 1587-1624. My aim is to discover the extent to which these plays’ portrayals of Muslim women, who transgress the gender as well as social norms of London’s patriarchal society, respond to and challenge the notion of constancy in Senecan drama.

For Seneca, writing in ancient Rome, constancy was a manly virtue that could be attained through reason and will. In early modern London, however, constancy signaled a person’s upholding of religious and gender norms. Constancy was particularly associated with women’s sexual virtue. Thus far, investigating plays by Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, John Fletcher, Elizabeth Cary, and others, I’ve found that Muslim women on the stage existed at the intersection of constancy, religion, and race. The concept of constancy was applied inconsistently to Muslim women in the early modern period as a result of the cultural need to redefine English Christian male virtue in the face of religious and geopolitical conflicts—conflicts in which the Ottoman Turks and other Muslim nations were more powerful than England or their European allies. My interdisciplinary approach highlights the fact that the teachings about constancy in the Protestant church impacted the way the stage dramatized England’s greater participation in global trade and refracted the didactic messages delivered in sermons and conduct manuals into the figure of the Muslim woman. I also believe that representations of the dangers Muslim women posed would have been used to convince a white Christian female audience to maintain their constancy in their own marriages. Representations of constancy, therefore, maintained a patriarchal society and a specifically Christian, English, masculine identity during a period when various challenges, such as the debates between the Catholics an Protestants as well as encounters between Christians and Muslims, would have threatened that identity.

Although contemporary and early modern representations of Muslim women are not exactly the same, they nonetheless share a crucial element in enabling politicians as well as writers to shape normative ideals of behavior, clothing, and social conduct. In turn, such ideals rationalize racial fictions about Muslim women. Hijab and inconstant behavior thus become an outward sign of an inner inferiority—an inferiority that justifies various political agendas, be it colonization, capitalism, or globalization. Although during the early modern period hijab had not become the subject of scrutiny, one can see how the discussion of Muslim women’s behavior and their association with inconstancy fed these stereotypes in later periods.

Leighla Khansari is a PhD candidate and a GTA in Comparative Studies and a GAA at the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the Ohio State University. Her dissertation investigates the intersection of race, gender, constancy, and religion in the portrayal of Muslim women in the English drama of early modern period. In 2017, Leighla was awarded the Folger Fellowship to attend “Gender, Race, and Early Modern Studies” colloquium.

The contributors to this special issue were participants in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Colloquium on “Gender, Race, and Early Modern Studies.” Organized and facilitated by Kimberly Anne Coles and Ayanna Thompson, the year-long colloquium met monthly to study a range of early modern cultural artifacts and texts. While exploring the Folger’s extensive collections, the participants also pursued innovative methods for bringing gender and race into dialogue with each other. Patricia Akhimie asked participants specifically to consider how questions of gender and race might be analyzed “in relation both to early modern texts and our own personal and contemporary experiences.” The contributions in this issue represent our efforts to do just that.

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